Last week, news of an analysis of file-sharing around journal articles lit up feeds and emails, but a key, tangential question soon emerged: Why did a journal author, a journal, and a reputable news publication all think it acceptable to broadcast information about a web site that facilitated file-sharing of journal articles, without naming the site?
On October 30, 2009, a blog affiliated with the Chronicle of Higher Education (“The Wired Campus“) published an entry by Ben Terris entitled, “The Latest File-Sharing Piracy: Academic Journals.” The post discusses a study by Ken Masters, MA, published in the Internet Journal of Medical Informatics, which analyzed an unnamed file-sharing site dealing in academic papers.
The publisher of the Internet Journal of Medical Informatics is a company called Internet Scientific Publications LLC, or ISPUB.com. Apparently started in 1996, it seems to be struggling. Many of the journals list “Nobody” as the editor-in-chief, making assurances like “Every published article has been reviewed by members of the editorial board and the editor-in-chief” read in a way that makes me wonder how well-enforced their peer-review actually can be given that “Nobody” is one of the guardians of their editorial process.
In any event, my beef is with journalism and research reporting, not the organizational capabilities of a publisher. My gripe is with a blog associated with the Chronicle of Higher Education and with the author of the original study. And while you may argue that the point of the study was to shed light on the practices and potential economic effects of file-sharing, I’d counter that there’s no reason to withhold important information about the subject of the study, if only for the sake of clarity. Was it a site predominantly in Europe? Asia? Was it a precursor to Mendeley? Are the people behind it well-known or moving on to other things? Did they profit from it?
Basically, how can anyone else confirm, refute, or re-analyze the research if such a vital link is missing and actively concealed by the researcher?
First, let’s deal with the author of the original study, Ken Masters. Mr. Masters was nice enough to respond to an email I sent him asking him for the name of the file-sharing site and inquiring about why he wasn’t comfortable disclosing this in the original paper. This was his reply:
The research was done as academic research, and you’ll be aware that there are ethical considerations that a researcher follows when analysing web sites, particularly web sites that contain bulletin boards or forums, as is the case with the web site that was examined in this case. Part of the ethical consideration involves protecting the identity of the site (even if the site is publicly visible, or was publicly visible at the time). On this point, given some of the papers I have read, there does appear to be some disagreement about this, but I would prefer to err on the safer side.
He also notes that the site seems to have gone off-line in January 2009, so its identity is a moot point. The site is essentially dead, Mr. Masters implies, so it’s all academic now.
That’s precisely the point. We need to know for the sake of further academic inquiry and validation.
Mr. Masters specializes in IT education for health professionals, and has published numerous papers and given many presentations on related topics. He’s not new to this territory. In our emails, he seems a sophisticated, knowledgeable, and kind man. Yet I disagree that anything — ethical or otherwise — was at stake sufficient to prevent him from disclosing the name of a site that was the subject of published research. This isn’t personal information about people but a web address or domain. It was publicly available. He didn’t mention any promises of confidentiality that enabled his research. It seems more a vague discomfort wrapped up as “ethics.” And I don’t think that cuts the mustard.
But I’m glad he did the research and published it, even in an incomplete form. Now, as for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, there are a couple of issues here:
- Does a blog that dons the badge of a parent publication have the same obligations for journalistic excellence and integrity as the parent publication?
- Are bloggers inherently lazy and naive?
First question first — I’ve made the mistake in the past of letting umbrella branding confuse me as to whether someone — in this case, Geoff Bilder — was quoted in Nature or in a Nature blog. Geoff suggested at the time that these brand expansions might be worth separate consideration in the future. His prescience is well-known, and I acknowledge it here by expanding on the issue — brand owners who allow their brands to be confused through sloppy extension or expansion risk brand dilution or distortion. Yet, there is also a cultivation principle at work here, potentially — as new forms of communication emerge, like video or blogs or interactive elements, a parent brand can provide a useful shelter as they mature and evolve.
So, is the Chronicle providing shelter to new media approaches by extending its brand over blogs? Perhaps, but that only leads us to the second question — are bloggers lazy and naive as a breed?
I certainly hope not. Ben Terris makes good links in his post, but didn’t investigate further than the source paper itself and, I suppose, the author of that paper (but there’s no indication he communicated with Mr. Masters). Terris didn’t evaluate the quality of the journal in which the research was published or the quality of the publishing company and business model behind it. Yet I tend to think that a regular Chronicle journalist would have either looked harder at the study and its pedigree, interviewed the author (by phone or email), or both.
And plenty of other blogs picked up the story, probably because of the Chronicle’s brand, bringing us full-circle. Continuing around, we return to the question, “Are bloggers lazy and naive as a breed?” Is the blogosphere really just a mindless echo-chamber?
It certainly doesn’t have to be.
Now, I’ve done some digging, and I can’t find the name of the file-sharing site examined in Mr. Masters’ original paper, but he drops a lot of clues:
- The site was aimed specifically at medical professionals and students.
- In January 2009, the site had a total of 127,626 registers users, and nearly 300,000 postings in the electronic discussion forums.
- The site had menus labeled with “Medical Education Forums”, “Allied Health & Nursing Forums”, “Medical Student Forums,” and “Physician and Resident Forums.” The paper focused on a sub-forum named “Databases & Journals – Requests and Enquiries.”
- Until January 2009, the site was publicly available. The site and forum messages were routinely indexed by search engines such as Google. Since January 2009, the site has been available to a small group only, and has also frequently been offline.
Anybody recognize it? Leave your conjecture or knowledge in the comments, or, for anonymity, email me the information you have.
My contention is that the simple things done in this post — meticulous linking, a bit more research, a bit more perspicuity, and an active skepticism finished with a call to crowd-sourced knowledge — would better serve branded blogs like “The Wired Campus,” especially when authors of research reports omit key information for no good reason.
UPDATE (12 Nov 2009, 9:45 a.m. ET): We have a winner! Apparently, the site Mr. Masters profiled was SMSO.net, which now redirects to a site called x240.com. However, an archive of SMSO.net can be seen in the WayBack Machine. There is also a citation on Wikipedia about actions against SMSO.net for not crediting Wikipedia. Mark Funk from Weill Cornell Medical Library found this through detective work yesterday, and published it on liblicense. It was forwarded to me this morning by an alert reader in the UK, based on this post. I am seeking confirmation from Mr. Masters.
UPDATE 2 (13 Nov 2009, 7:17 a.m. ET): Mr. Masters replied to my email, stating that he will still not identify the site that was the subject of his research, despite the evidence offered here. In the meantime, Mark Funk has continued his research, and has found that SMSO.net has an active Facebook page, and is apparently gearing up for a comeback with better service. Note the link to Mr. Masters’ article in the left sidebar of the SMSO.net Facebook page. Apparently, Mr. Masters is alone in his unwillingness to acknowledge that SMSO.net is the subject of his research.